What Causes the Blahs? A Decalogue for Keeping Engaged

Lethargy. Ennui. Dragging. Can’t get going. Almost feels like depression–you’ve got the blahs.

When the blahs take over, you just can’t focus your attention and become satisfyingly engaged in something you’d normally relish—reading, cleaning, building, studying, creating, analyzing, practicing, and so forth. Benjamin Disraeli once wrote that “Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.” Therein lies the essence of motivation (from the Latin “movere,” to move)—movement, or action. Motivation is a motor in gear and making progress of some sort.

However, having the blahs doesn’t just mean that your body is disengaged—your mind can’t wrap itself around anything either. Not a good place to be! And the common ways of trying to cope with the blahs only tend to put you deeper into ennui: eating, drinking, sleeping, watching television, or…just sitting or lying there, your mind vacant.


Time to turn to my “Autopilot Restart Checklist”! This list is an abbreviated version of Table 12.1 from my book The Owner’s Manual for Happiness. The blahs are a symptom of staleness of some sort—either you have been doing something for too long, so that it has become stale, or there is something you haven’t been doing that you normally enjoy doing, and that makes other stuff stale.  So post this list in your man-cave or woman-cave—a place you’re most likely to feel the blahs most acutely and wish for some kind of healthy pick-me-up.

Pierce’s Decalogue for Curing the Blahs:

  • Take a break. If you’ve been doing something for a long time and are out of gas, take a 180° turn—do something different, something that uses a different sense perception. If you have been using your eyes, then use your ears or move your body. If you’ve been moving your body, then do some paperwork. If you’ve been using your hands, then exercise with the hula hoop. If you have been writing, groom the family pet. This allows your over-used senses to reset.
  • Change-up. Similar to taking a break, but for longer periods. If you’ve been reading for an hour, switch to re-organizing something. If you’ve been socializing for a while, close the door and have some solitude. If you’ve been alone for a while, immerse yourself in an activity with one or more people. If you’ve been quiet, turn up the volume. If you’ve been charging forth in a fast tempo, slow down. And vice-versa. If you’ve been mindlessly engorging, slow to a snail’s pace and savor every sip, sniff, bite, eyeful, and earful. Let your mind react fully to sensory experience—imagine where that chocolate bean grew, and what would be its perfect liquid accompaniment.
  • Inventory your passions. I keep a list of my four passions by my work station—develop relationships, learn something new, treat my senses, and translate theory into practice. Sometimes staleness results from unexpressed passions. Review your passion list and determine what you’ve been ignoring. For me, if I’ve ignored relationships, maybe it is time to write a letter to a friend. If I’ve ignored my senses, perhaps it is time for a square of chocolate, or to make some fresh pesto. If I’ve not learned something new, perhaps it is time to read up on the history of the homeland of one of my international associates. If I’ve not translated theory into practice, perhaps it is time to review my notes on a recent book I’ve read and create a training activity.
  • Check out your body. If you’ve missed sleep, take a nap. If you’ve not exercised, do so. If you’ve eaten too much, go for a walk. If you’ve been inside for a long time, go outside for a while (to get fresh air and sunshine). If too much alcohol, switch to water or coffee. If too much caffeine, get some exercise to burn it off. If too much sugar, get some exercise to burn it off.
  • Inventory your traits. Which extreme traits have not been expressed recently? For example, if you are highly organized and have been living in relative chaos recently, then get organized and clean up. Or, identify a weak trait that you have been overusing recently, and do the opposite—e.g. if you are naturally solitary and have been schmoozing for days, then take time for yourself with an extended solitary project—read War and Peace, build a model, learn a new piece of music, write your autobiography.


  • Inventory your abilities. Are there mental abilities that you are good at and enjoy but that you haven’t been using? If so, then identify a project that would engage that ability. For me, I have high auditory skills. Especially during the summer, I run the danger of prolonged stretches in which I do not experience my favorite music—either as listener or performer. This is because my normal music groups are idle. This is the time to make something happen, like a covered dish madrigal evening, an afternoon chamber music session, or maybe even a trip to the mountains to catch a concert at the Brevard Music Festival.
  • Inventory your values. A value is what is important to you. It could be something more abstract, such as Achievement, or something more concrete, such as a musical instrument. Identify a value that you have not expressed in some time. For example, for me, I value my rosewood alto recorder, but I haven’t touched it in a couple of months. I could pick it up and practice. Or, I could give it a rubdown with linseed oil. Do something with a value you’ve neglected to let it know you still care for it and are willing to work to keep it in prime condition. [Pardon all the music stuff—that’s just me. Substitute an old baseball glove for the recorder—practice and/or rub it down with lanolin.]
  • Check in with your goal(s). If you have one or more goals, ask which needs attention. Then make a list of actions both small and large that you might take to get closer to attaining that goal. If you do not have a goal(s), then make one. You could start by making a bucket list—things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket. Once the list is begun, pick an item and make a move towards realizing it. If the bucket item is to learn Chinese, then get a subscription to Rosetta Stone. If it is to build a doll house for your grandchild, then find some plans on the Internet. If you have a bucket list, then you have goals! You just have to pick one to focus on. If you have so many goals that you are stymied by the enormity of it all, then it is time to sit with someone close to you and ask them to help you establish priorities.
  • Check your self-other balance. Been serving others at the expense of your own needs? Then do something nice for yourself. You can’t serve others effectively if your own machine is run down—so make time for some personal preventive maintenance. Been selfish for a while? Then do something nice for others. Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “Service is the rent we pay for being.”
  • Consider your legacy. Ask what you are doing that future generations (both your family and the world at large) will remember you by. If nothing, get started by forming an appropriate goal. It could be something as lofty as endowing a chair in your favorite organization or as humble as building a bench for the weary in a neighborhood park. At a minimum, everyone could write their autobiography—that’s not egotism, but providing answers to others’ questions once you’re no longer to answer them in real time.

For more ideas, and for elaboration on these ten guidelines, read my book The Owner’s Manual for Happiness—Essential Elements for a Meaningful Life

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